Mental Health of Child Caregivers of AIDS Patients

Children who care for parents with AIDS have higher levels of mental illness than their counterparts

The results of a new study—funded by Economic and Social Research Council and the South African National Research Foundation and released just in time for World AIDS day (December 1)—show that children who care for parents with AIDS have higher levels of mental illness than their counterparts.

The issue is of particular significance in South Africa (home to the study), where 5.6 million of the 33.4 million people worldwide, and roughly 22 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, who are living with HIV reside. Of those in South Africa, just 22% have access to anti-retroviral medication.

Early findings from the study show that 25% of children who live with adults who have AIDS perform more than three hours of care work per day. Plus, one-third perform such medical tasks as dressing wounds, bathing, and helping with toileting, a number that is a much higher proportion than seen among children who care for parents or guardians with other illnesses.

That’s not all. Young caregivers’ education is affected, with 41% missing school to provide care, rates of being bullied that are higher, stigmatism placed on them in the community, and exposure to emotional and physical abuse at home. Add all of that to the fact that their loved on is dying, and it’s no wonder that these children show higher levels of psychological disorder, including strong linkages to depression and anxiety.

“I look at my mother and I see she is sick. I worry that she is going to die just like my father,” said a 17-year-old boy who was one of 5,500 children and adolescents interviewed for the study, which is the first major study looking at young caregivers of adults with AIDS. The researchers are also interviewing 2,500 adult parents or guardians who live with the children for the ongoing study.

Certainly, the rates of HIV and AIDS in South Africa are higher than those in any part of the US, but can these early findings not shed light on the issues faced by child caregivers in the US? Children caring for their parents isn’t all that uncommon in the US, and is actually a growing phenomenon, as evidenced by the following video from 2007.

In fact, hundreds of thousands of children care for their sick parents or grandparents, with experts saying there will be more children forced into similar situations as the economy continues to falter, according to this video:

So, how can physicians intervene? What can be done to lift the physical and psychological burdens faced by child caregivers? Tell us what you think!